par Fiston Mwanza Mujila
République démocratique du Congo, 2014
Las aventuras de la China Iron [The Adventures of China Iron], a witty, subversive reimagining of Argentina's so-called "national epic" Martín Fierro told from the point of view of the gaucho Martín Fierro's abandoned wife, sure sounded like it'd be right up my "rustic" intertextual alley, but that eyesore of a cover still had me worried until Cabezón Cámara's succession of ace storytelling shenanigans was well underway. How was I to know that hallucinogenic mushrooms, a delirious critique of the 19th century "civilization and barbarism" discourse popularized by Sarmiento, and a gender-bending orgy scene or two involving the occasionally cross-dressing title character would all factor into the novel's proceedings? For those not familiar with the 1872 & 1879 Martín Fierro beloved by Borges and maybe worried about the wealth of literary in-jokes likely to follow, suffice it to say that the only thing you really need to know as background for Las aventuras is that its amiable narrator--a teenage orphan won by the gaucho in a card game in José Hernández's original poem but who here calls herself Josephine Star Iron or China Iron or just plain China according to her mood--sets out on a journey across the Pampas in the company of an Englishwoman named Liz, a puppy named Estreya, and a gaucho named Rosa whom they meet along the way. The destination? A small fort on the frontier with the Indian territories, where Liz's husband has been conscripted to fight against the savages. The journey? Part voyage of initiation, part picaresque adventure saga, part Ema, la cautiva-like knife in the back of the Argentinean canon drizzled with a splash of Huck Finn lighting out for the Territory at the end. I had a good time reading this. In her narrator's innocent and often wonderstruck telling, Cabezón Cámara makes it easy to get an idea of the vastness of the Argentinean hinterland before the railroads arrived--"esa casi nada que cruzábamos se iba pareciendo a un cementerio abandonado" ["that semi-nothingness that we were crossing was resembling an abandoned cementery"] she says of one stretch of territory where entire days were spent in the company of weeds and the odd startled hare but without running into "ni una vaca, ni un indio, ni un cristiano ni un caballo" ["either a cow, an Indian, a Christian or a horse"] (34)--but the specificity of the landscape painter episodes is just an appetizer for the full course dinner of artistic license and "licentiousness" that follows. In other words, both Hernández and that "bestia de Fierro" ["brute Fierro"] (125), i.e. the Martín Fierro author and his artistic creation, "that strange gaucho who believed he was a writer" (117), get skewered as characters here--loved the scene where the blowhard Hernández follows up a racist anti-Indian and anti-gaucho rant about civilization and progress by snickerng that the gauchos he knows, "que suelen ser una mezcla de indio y español' ["who tend to be a mix of Spaniard and Indian"], have so far only turned out "unos Habsburgos retacones y negros y analfabetos y desdentados desde los trece" ["some squat, black, illiterate Habsburgs, toothless from the age of 13"] as a result of the attempts to "mejorar la raza" ["improve the race"] through European stock (108). Brutal! Of course, civilization itself receives a similarly scornful treatment once China & Co. break free from convention for a paradisiacal and free love life among the Indians on and around the islands along the Paraná River (note the influx of indigenous language as the novel nears its conclusion). "Bienvenida a nuestra fiesta, mi querida muchacho inglés" ["Welcome to our party, my beloved English boy"] (151) the female Indian leader Kaukalitrán tells her new lover China, the Spanish feminine endings for "bienvenida" ["welcome"] and "querida" ["beloved"] in combination with the use of the word boy anticipating Liz's own same sex sweet nothings as the lovemaking continues: "Liz me hablaba en inglés y me decía tigress, mi tigresa, my mermaid, my girl, my good boy, mi gaucha blanca, my tigress otra vez" ["Liz was speaking to me in English and was saying 'tigress, my tigress, my mermaid, my girl, my good boy, my white lady gaucho, my tigress' again"] (154). Mad fun.
On the second to last page of this insanely high adrenaline memoir, "privately published" in a limited edition of 2,000 copies in 1920 when somebody massively underestimated its popular appeal, Ernst Jünger matter-of-factly relates what it was like to be a survivor of the trench warfare and gas attacks of World War I: "Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me with an even twenty scars. In the course of this war, where so much of the firing was done into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times" (288). His soldier's luck, in combination with good genes, must have carried on well after the war ended because the resilient Tristram Shandy-reading lieutenant lived to be over a hundred years old before he finally passed away in 1998! In any event, reading about what Jünger called his "adventures," it's hard to underestimate just how fortunate he was to make it out of the war alive. His memories, based in part on a diary he kept during the hostilities, are extraordinarily vivid. En route to the Battle of the Somme on the road to the village of Guillemont, for example, Jünger paints a picture which is almost Thérèse Raquin-esque in terms of the sensory overload: "Over the ruins, as over all the most dangerous parts of the terrain, lay a heavy smell of death, because the fire was so intense that no one could bother with the corpses. You really did have to run for your life in these places, and when I caught the smell of it as I ran, I was hardly surprised - it belonged to there. Moreover, this heavy, sweetish atmosphere was not merely disgusting; it also, in association with the piercing fogs of gunpowder, brought about an almost visionary excitement, that only the extreme nearness of death is able to produce" (93). Elsewhere, the "sweetish, oniony smell" of a British phosgene gas attack in or near the woods of St-Pierre-Vaast serves as the Proustian madeleine for this surrealistic turn: "With weeping eyes, I stumbled back to the Vaux woods, plunging from one crater into the next, as I was unable to see anything through the misted visor of my gas mask. With the extent and inhospitableness of its spaces, it was a night of eerie solitude. Each time I blundered into sentries or troops who had lost their way, I had the icy sensation of conversing not with people, but with demons. We were all roving around in an enormous dump somewhere off the edge of the charted world" (114). Ironically or not given all the death and destruction witnessed and then depicted by Jünger, he doesn't come off as either anti-war or as an apologist for the war. There's very little editorializing along those lines. Which isn't to say that he isn't sensitive to the costs of the war to friends and foes alike as his descriptions of the impact of nonstop bombing--"The villages we passed through on our way had the look of vast lunatic asylums" (127); his account of a skirmish with Indian troops, "who had travelled thousands of miles across the sea, only to give themselves a bloody nose on this god-forsaken piece of earth against the Hanoverian Rifles"--"The whole scene - the mixture of the prisoners' laments and our jubilation - had something primordial about it. This wasn't war; it was ancient history" (150); and his remorse over a soldier he killed at close range all make abundantly clear: "Outside it [a dugout] lay my British soldier, little more than a boy, who had been hit in the temple. He lay there, looking quite relaxed. I forced myself to look closely at him. It wasn't a case of 'you or me' any more. I often thought back on him; and more with the passing of the years. The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse; and we must exercise it. Sorrow, regret, pursued me deep into my dreams" (241).
When Selva Almada was just a sheltered teen growing up in Entre Ríos in the 1980s, news of the murders of three other Argentinean girls roughly her own age--Andrea Danne, 19; María Luisa Quevedo, 15; Sarita Mundín, 20--awakened her to a couple of harsh realities: "Adentro de tu casa podían matarte. El horror podía vivir bajo el mismo techo que vos" ["They could kill you within your own house. The horror could live under the same roof as you"] (17). As Almada explains the extent of the shock a page later, "Tres adolescentes de provincia asesinadas en los años ochenta, tres muertes impunes ocurridas cuando todavía, en nuestro país, desconocíamos el término femicidio" ["Three adolescents from the provinces murdered in the 1980s, three unpunished deaths at a time when, in our country, we still didn't know the term femicide"] (18). Haunted by these deaths even when, as an adult, she realized that young girls were dying all around Argentina in alarming numbers, the author crisscrossed the country in search of some kind of answers to the cold cases still unsolved after decades. The results of the investigation, as chronicled in the non-sensationalist but still way sobering Chicas muertas [Dead Girls, now out in an English translation], take the form of a hybrid narrative nonfiction/memoir blend which manages to pay respect to the victims and their families while not exactly providing solace for anybody else. While Almada succeeds in giving a measure of voice to the three victims beyond the forensic reports, through no fault of her own what little "perspective" there is to be found here comes in the form of things--a clairvoyant who denied the help requested by the boyfriend of one of the victims, saying that "él con las cosas del diablo no se metía" ["he didn't get mixed up with things of the devil"] (42); a husband who endangered his wife, another one of the victims, because she was "demasiado linda" ["too cute"] to return to her previous job as a maid after she had a baby: "Tanta belleza desperdiciada entre los vahos de los productos de limpieza. Así que la mandó a prostituirse" ["So much beauty wasted among the cleaning product vapors. So he sent her out to turn tricks"] (111-112)--that can only be classified as tough, tough pills to swallow. A brave piece of work.
Un puñado de cuentos, todos menos uno o buenos o muy buenos, dos o tres de los cuales son cuentazos. "Esa mujer", por ejemplo, es el famosísimo cuento en el que un periodista que se parece a Walsh habla con un militar sobre el robo y traslado del cadáver de Evita. En menos de diez páginas y sin nombrar a la muerta específicamente, los dos personajes bailan alrededor del tema de manera evasiva: "--Esa mujer --le oigo murmurar--. Estaba desnuda en el ataúd y parecía una virgen. La piel se le había vuelto transparente. Se veían las metástasis del cáncer, como esos dibujitos que uno hace en una ventanilla mojada" (292). Mientras tanto, el cuentista-- en gran parte a través del diálogo--capta una atmósfera tensa e inquietante en igual medida. "--¡Está parada! --grita el coronel--. ¡La enterré parada, como Facundo, porque era un macho!" (296). En una nota, Walsh añade que "la conversación que reproduce" dentro del cuento "es, en lo esencial, verdadera" (287). Espeluznante. "Irlandeses detrás de un gato", que cuenta la paliza que espera el nuevo chico en un internado católico de provincia como rito de iniciación, es otro buen ejemplo del estilo vigoroso y sin tonterías de su autor. Además de crear una atmósfera donde se respira "el aire asesino" (342) de la violencia pendiente, Walsh parece señalar la inescapabilidad de tal comportamiento en una sociedad que margina a los pobres y juega por las reglas de los "viejos tiempos levíticos" (340). Nocaut.
An appreciation of Argentinean Literature of Doom great Roberto Arlt penned by fellow Argentinean Literature of Doom great César Aira? Sort of! While I'm not sure what prompted Aira (above, photographer unknown) to take up this possibly spurious exercise in literary criticism, he begins his essay with a definition of the methodologies of expressionism and impressionism which I won't go into here. Arlt, "torturado y pensativo como un alemán" ["pensive and tortured like a German"] (55), is an expressionist, though--the "like a German" line supposedly owing itself to a quote of Goethe's on the nature of the Teutonic temperament. Moving from the general to the specific, Aira then zeroes in on the theme of "la traición' ["treachery, betrayal"] (57) as an example of how Arlt's expressionist tendencies ooze to the surface in his work. Although Aira cheekily calls this "a random but a central" example ["uno cualquiera, pero central"], parenthetically adding that "la elección de ejemplos es una trampa que habría que evitar" ["the choice of examples is a trap that should be avoided"] (!) (57), one wonders why the choice of language is so slippery here given that betrayal and treachery are so foundational to Arlt's fiction. One possible answer: "Cuando uno se pregunta por las intenciones de un artista, es inevitable que se pierda en un laberinto" ["When one wonders about the intentions of an artist, it's inevitable that one get lost in a labyrinth"] (59). And another: slippery language is foundational to Aira's own obra. Whatever one's opinions on Arlt's art, of course, one needn't be a fan of either writer to be amused and/or intrigued by Aira's essayistic antics and conclusions. One of my favorites among the former comes in the paragraph which begins, "Suele decirse 'Arlt, nuestro Flaubert'" ["As the saying goes, 'Arlt, our Flaubert'"]. Although I've actually seen Arlt referred to by Argentines as "our Dostoevsky," I'd be surprised if Aira didn't make up the "our Flaubert" talk altogether. It's a great set-up line, though, insofar as our critic goes on to hammer home the points that 1) "Creo que la aproximación es inepta, y no sólo por el abismo que hay entre un escritor maduro y burgués, y el adolescente visionario que fue Arlt... Yo diría 'nuestro Lautréamont'" ["I believe the approximation is inept and not only because of the gulf that there is between a mature, bourgeois writer and the adolescent visionary that was Arlt... I would say, 'our Lautréamont'"] and 2) "Lo que en la novela europea se hizo a lo largo de quinientos años y mil escritores, en la Argentina lo hizo Arlt solo, en cinco años" ["What in the European novel was done over the course of five hundred years and by one thousand writers was done in Argentina by Arlt alone in five years"] (63, ellipses added). Aira, who hides his cards on the matter of how much he esteems Arlt as a stylist or not, loses his poker face when concluding that Arlt's sense of "lo novelesco" ["the novelesque"] has roots in "el folletín truculento" ["the grisly feuilleton"]--something in opposition to "la novela ideológica, la falsa novela" ["the ideological novel, the fake novel"] as practiced by a more conformist writer like Eduardo Mallea: "Es la diferencia entre el gentleman y el Monstruo" ["It's the difference between the gentleman and the Monster"] (62); when pointing out some of the paradoxes of Arlt's style ("Las novelas de Arlt son historias de la inmovilidad, novelas de las que no se sale, pero al mismo tiempo no se explican sino como novelas de viaje" ["Arlt's novels are stories of immobility, novels in which there's no exit, but at the same time can only be explained in terms of travel novels"]) (63); or when finding unexpected parallels between Arlt's suspension of time and sense of perspective and Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass. "Yo mismo, proponiéndome como ejemplo de la singularidad extenuada del tiempo, trepo a la cinta del continuo y corro tras el Monstruo revestido de la figura irrisoria de la explicación" ["I myself, setting out as an example of the exhausted singularity of time, step onto the treadmill of the continuum and chase after the Monster sheathed in the ridiculous figure of explanation"], Aira writes, purportedly moved by "la introyección feliz de lo imaginario" ["the happy introjection of the imaginary"] and "la recepción del cine mudo de Arlt" ["the reception of Arlt's silent film"] technique, prey to images that dance before his eyes. "Duchamp la llamó Perspectiva, yo la llamo Inspiración. Salgo a buscarlas todos los días, en una rutina inmutable, a la perfecta transparencia de lo habitual, a las calles de mi barrio, que es el de Arlt, Flores, a los cafés de los alrededores de la plaza y la estación, donde voy todas las mañanas a escribir" ["Duchamp called it Perspective, I call it Inspiration. I go out to search for them every day, in an unchanging routine, in the perfect transparency of the habitual, in the streets of my neighborhood, which is the same as Arlt's, Flores, at the cafés surrounding the plaza and the train station where I go every morning to write" (70-71). Yes!
"ARLT," written in 1991 and published in 1993, appears on pp. 55-71 of the Argentinean journal Paradoxa #7. People wanting a full account of all the good stuff I had to leave out from it can find a PDF of the piece here.
Notre-Dame du Nil (Folio, 2019)
par Scholastique Mukasonga
Rwanda, au début des années 1970. Le lycée Notre-Dame-du-Nil, tout proche de la source du fleuve égyptien, est un lycée d'enseignement catholique consacré à << l'élite féminine du pays. >> Quoique dix pour cent des élèves sont Tutsi selon le quota officiel, les tensions sont fortes entre les Hutu et leurs rivales en raison de la croyance des premiers que << le peuple majoritaire >> sont << les vraies Rwandaises >> et toutes les autres sont << des parasites >> (255). Pas étonnant qu'un personnage remarquera: << Le Rwanda, c'est le pays de la Mort >> (274). Dans ce roman, Scholastique Mukasonga (née au Rwanda en 1956) raconte une sorte de répétition générale du génocide de 1994 tandis qu'elle propose le portrait d'une génération qui disparaîtrait bientôt. L'écrivaine m'a surpris avec le dynamisme de ce portrait. J'ai aimé, par exemple, cette description torrentielle de la saison des pluies: << La pluie pendant de longs mois, c'est la Souveraine du Rwanda, bien plus que le rois d'autrefois ou le président d'aujourd'hui, la Pluie, c'est celle qu'on attend, qu'on implore, celle qui décidera de la disette ou de l'abondance, qui sera le bon présage d'un mariage fécond, la première pluie au bout de la saison sèche qui fait danser les enfants qui tendent leurs visages vers la ciel pour accueillir les grosses gouttes tant désirées, la pluie impudique qui met à nu, sous leur pagne mouillé, les formes indécises des toutes jeunes filles, la Maîtresse violente, vétilleuse, capricieuse, celle qui crépite sur tous les toits de tôles, ceux cachés sous la bananeraie comme ceux des quartiers bourbeux de la capitale, celle qui a jeté son filet sur le lac, a effacé la démesure des volcans, qui règne sur les immenses fôrets du Congo, qui sont les entrailles de l'Afrique, la Pluie, la Pluie sans fin, jusqu'à l'océan qui l'engendre >> (65-66). Une seule phrase. Une telle richesse! En plus du côté descriptif de Mukasonga, j'ai aussi aimé la complexité de sa vision du monde. Bien que la dualité Hutu/Tutsi devienne plus prononcée au cours du roman, Notre-Dame du Nil évite la simplification et son point de vue sur la modernité du Rwanda est peut-être mieux illustré par ce commentaire de Kagabo, un guérisseur, sur une sorcière qui allait aider une étudiante Tutsi en danger: << Nyamirongi parle avec les nuages >>, il dit, << mais elle n'a pas de transistor. Il y a eu un coup d'État >> (266). Formidable.